A recent study published in the CABI journal Human-Animal Interactions challenges the widely held belief that companion animals provide significant emotional benefits for owners with severe mental illness. The researchers, led by Dr. Emily Shoesmith and Dr. Elena Ratschen from the University of York, surveyed 170 participants in the UK, including individuals with bipolar disorder or psychosis. They aimed to explore the connection between owning an animal and mental health in this specific population.
Contrary to expectations, the study found no significant association between owning an animal and well-being, depression, anxiety, or loneliness scores in individuals with severe mental illness. The researchers also discovered that in their earlier survey conducted in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, animal ownership was actually linked to a self-reported decline in mental health, likely due to the challenges and restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Although the latest data was collected after the removal of COVID-19 rules, there was a marginal increase in well-being scores, suggesting that the pandemic context might have influenced the findings. However, since depression and anxiety scores were not collected in the 2021 study, it was not possible to compare them.
Dr. Shoesmith hypothesized that the added responsibility of animal ownership might exacerbate existing stressors experienced by individuals with severe mental illness, such as the cost of caring for the animal and uncertainty regarding housing. The researchers also suggested that the temperament and characteristics of the animals themselves could play a role, explaining why trained therapy animals often have a more positive impact on individuals with mental health illnesses compared to companion animals. Therapy animals are carefully selected, trained to be friendly and obedient, and possess relaxed personality traits.
The researchers emphasized the need for further research to better understand the complex relationship between humans and animals, especially in the context of severe mental illness. They also acknowledged that despite the lack of significant mental health benefits, participants reported strong attachment to their animals, with over 95% stating that their animals provided companionship, consistency, and feelings of love.
While the study challenges the assumption that animals universally benefit the well-being of individuals with severe mental illness, the researchers suggest that companion animals still play an important role in the social network of these individuals. They also recommend future studies to include larger sample sizes and a wider variety of animal species to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the topic. Ultimately, the research indicates that the positive impact of animals on well-being may not apply uniformly across all sub-populations and contexts, highlighting the need for further investigation.